Is government policy suggesting it’s acceptable for children to be destitute in the community? This question is being raised by the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) Network which, among other campaign groups, is expressing fears that vital safeguards for children won’t be retained under a Conservative government Immigration Act.
If the immigration bill 2015/16 passes into law, it will remove a section of legislation which currently allows failed asylum seekers with children to continue to receive the same support once their asylum claim has been rejected.
Not eligible for support
The bill states that those with children with them when their asylum claims and any appeals are rejected will “no longer be treated as though they were still asylum seekers”, and will cease to be eligible for support under section 95 of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act.
Catherine Houlcroft, a project officer at the NRPF Network, says there is a tension between central government policy made at a remove, and the duties of frontline social workers faced with vulnerable people at their front door.
“The Home Office response would be, if families are otherwise going to be destitute in the UK, to meet their children’s needs they should be returning to their country of origin. It’s their choice if they’re not taking up that route.”
Serious safeguarding issues
This would create serious safeguarding issues if there are people in the community with no support or accommodation, she says. What’s more likely, however, is that the presentation of a destitute family would force local authority support even if they are not eligible for central government assistance.
If section 95 support is removed, when families who remain in the UK without central government support become destitute, local authorities will still be bound to support them by section 17 duties under the Children Act 1989.
Refugee Council policy manager Judith Dennis reiterates this distinction between the aims of central government policy and the reality of frontline practice. A policy which says people who have been refused the right to remain are not entitled to any support may not be much good to a social worker met with the choice of providing a family with support, or letting them disappear into the community, with no idea of where or how they will live.
She says government has not explained how it will retain safeguards for children while removing these areas of support, and simultaneously not place any extra burden on local authorities as it has claimed.
These likely new burdens on local authorities may also be worsened by the loss of an independent advisory service, currently run by the charity Refugee Action.
Choices Voluntary Assisted Return programme, which independently advises families wishing voluntarily to return to their country of origin, will close at the end of this year and its function will be absorbed by the Home Office.
Dennis says this raises concerns that, without an independent non-directive body running this service, pressures will fall on statutory authorities to talk to people about return, and potentially encourage it. She says this strays into the territory of giving immigration advice, something social workers aren’t allowed to do.
“I worry they will feel compromised,” she says. “Social workers will get very frustrated when they find there’s not much they can do.” Dennis says refusing vulnerable people help on a technicality runs counter to social work values.
Refugee Action says of the closure: “People who are uncertain whether to return or not will no longer have a source of funded, impartial advice to help them with their decision making.
Voluntary assisted return
“Possible consequences of the lack of such advice are that people may remain in the UK – quite possibly facing very difficult circumstances such as destitution and being at risk of exploitation – or return to their country without having fully thought through the decision.”
Additional burdens on local authorities may also translate to less support for destitute families. There is no statutory definition of destitution for the purposes of support under the Children Act, whereas there is a defined test for destitution in Home Office guidance for the purposes of offering central government support to refused asylum seekers.
The Home Office considers someone is destitute if they “do not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it (whether or not their other essential living needs are met) or they have adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, but cannot meet other essential living needs”.
Those eligible for support under section 95 of the Immigration Act receive £73.90 as a couple and £36.95 as a lone parent, and an additional £36.95 per child.
Dennis says the likelihood is, in practice, this means those assessed as destitute under the Children Act will receive less than they would have done under the stricter guidelines set out in the 1999 act.
“The amount given to families under the Children Act is not really worked out according to their needs, but according to what the local authority can afford,” Dennis says. Since there are no set rates for financial support under the Children Act, they vary widely between local authorities, according to the NRPF Network.
A report by the Centre on Migration Policy & Society (COMPAS) found inconsistencies in how local authorities weigh up evidence and reach conclusions in assessments of people with no recourse to public funds.
A lack of a clear definition of destitution means the level of support and treatment a family receives, for example whether they are examined by a fraud officer, will depend on where they present.
One social worker in the east of England said all they could aim to do was keep the numbers of people receiving local authority support under no recourse to public funds criteria low, and aim for them to receive support by other channels. They keep referrals down by doing “very stringent assessments”, she says.
“If we accept we have a duty to a person we want to move them on as quickly as possible to obtain their status and to be able to obtain recourse to public funds or else to be able to work so we no longer have to support them.
“Like all local authorities we’re trying to use our resources as carefully as possible.”